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Is it the end of the road for two main national parties of Sri Lanka?

Two major national political parties that took turns in ruling the country for seven decades are about bite the dust, perhaps ending a healthy democratic system in which these two parties ensured a stable government and a strong opposition in parliament most of the times, writes Sugeeswara Senadhira for South Asia Monitor

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Sri Lanka’s two premier national parties that ruled the country either as a single party or as the leading partner of an alliance for more than three decades each are at the pathetic predicament of being relegated to second-grade political forces at the general elections slated for August 5, 2020.

Unless there is a miraculous change in the voters’ mind, the United National Party (UNP), established in 1947 and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) formed four years later, would lose their historically leading positions held in the governments since independence. 

Two major national political parties that took turns in ruling the country for seven decades are about to bite the dust, perhaps ending a healthy democratic system in which these two parties ensured a stable government and a strong opposition in parliament most of the time.

The SLFP was relegated to be a minor partner in the 2015 government, and within five years the UNP is faced with the danger of reducing itself to be a minor party in opposition.

Former President Maithripala Sirisena took over the SLFP leadership after January 8, 2015 presidential elections and the party became a minor partner in the government, marking the end of its position as an alternate national party. Although, in 2001 too, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga allowed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP to run the government for three years until she took over a few ministries and called for fresh parliamentary elections and ensured the victory of an SLFP-led alliance.

End of SLFP supremacy 

The SLFP’s supreme position ended when local government elections in February 2019 marked the emergence of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) as the top national political party, thus relegating the SLFP to the position of a minor party. De-facto SLPP Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa’s charisma alone was sufficient to ensure SLPP’s acceptance by the masses at the election. He took a leaf out of SLFP Founder, S W R D Bandaranaike’s 1956 record book that proved a leader could outplay a traditional national party under a new political force acceptable to the people. 

In the local government elections SLPP topped the score with 44.6 percent votes, while the SLFP was reduced to a mere 4.44 percent. However, the UNP, polling 32.6 percent of the votes managed to retain its position as a national party. It is ironic that after six decades, Bandaranaike’s SLFP was relegated to play second fiddle to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP. 

SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resounding victory on November 16, 2019 sealed the fate of SLFP as a formidable national party. The SLFP is now, merely a minor partner of the SLPP alliance. 

Today the UNP is faced with a similar predicament as nearly 90 percent of the UNP's former MPs are contesting the forthcoming general elections as candidates of Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) headed by former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. The SJB was formed after an unprecedented leadership struggle between UNP leader Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa. While Wickremesinghe loyalists wanted to contest as the UNP under the elephant symbol, the Premadasa faction preferred to contest under the symbol of the telephone. It is the symbol of the newly formed alliance, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).

The indications are that in the August 5 general elections SJB is most likely to be the main opposition party, thus pushing Wickremesinghe’s UNP to to be a minor party in the opposition, a mere shadow of the Grand Old Party formed in 1947.

Such a scenario would mark the end of the chapter in which two national parties governed Sri Lanka for 70 years in turns.

UNP fighting a losing battle 

The UNP was founded by leaders of the calibre of Don Stephen (DS) Senanayake, who became independent Sri Lanka’s first prime minister and S W R D Bandaranaike, who broke away from UNP in 1951 to be the prime minister in 1956.

The UNP was built upon the visions of these great men. They were known as the politicians who did not engage in corruption, did not waste public funds. Senanayake was patriotic and adopted home-grown agricultural policies. The people of the country, especially the farming community of new settlements in Rajarata in the north-central and Galoya and Ampara in the east, are eternally grateful to Senanayake for the service rendered by him for the economy and development of the country through the initiative like Govi Janapada (farmer settlements).

When Dudley  Senanayake was elected to the premiership in 1952 following the unfortunate demise of his father DS, he was reluctant to hold the post without a mandate from the people and as a true democrat he decided to dissolve Parliament in order to seek a fresh mandate. 

The way Dudley Senanayake conducted himself in public life makes him the quintessential democrat in Sri Lankan politics. He was a gem of a human being who bedecked and added value to the political sphere with endless humanity. Even the critics agree that the periods of DS and Dudley at the helm of UNP were the most democratic eras of the party. The only blemish one finds in DS was that he had antagonized Bandaranaike and Sir John Kotalawala as his strategy was to ensure Dudley would succeed him. 

Although Dudley became the prime minister after the death of DS, he went to polls to get the people’s verdict and succeeded in trouncing Bandaranaike’s newly-formed SLFP in 1952. When anti-government protests were rising in 1953, he accepted his responsibility and bowed out and Sir John Kotalawala became UNP leader and prime minister. For this magnanimous gesture of Dudley, the UNPers begged him to re-take the party leadership in 1960 and he became prime minister in March 1960. As a true democrat, he resigned within hours after losing the parliamentary vote in March 1960 and called for fresh elections. He returned to power once again in 1965.

Even UNPers acknowledge that the UNP did not remain the same after the DS and Dudley period. J R Jayewardene went to the extent of demanding unsigned resignation letters from all the UNP MPs in 1977 and ruled the party with an iron fist. His successor Ranasinghe Premadasa adopted such autocratic practices that many UNP leaders, including intellectual giants of the party, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, at one time collected signature to impeach President Premadasa.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP leader for the last three decades, saddled the central committee and executive committee with his loyalists and succeeded in thwarting all the democratic and undemocratic attempts to oust him from the leadership. UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa fought hard and became the UNP candidate for the presidential election of November 2019. Although Premadasa had the backing of almost 80 percent of UNP MPs, Ranil refused to give him the party leadership and on the eve of nominations for general elections 2020, Sajith left UNP to form SJB.

The UNP today is fighting a losing battle to prevent the party from disintegration. On August 5 in the most likely event of the SJB gaining more seats in Parliament and becoming the main opposition party, it will replace the UNP as the alternate national political party, thus closing the seven-decade-old tradition in turns by UNP and SLFP.

(The writer is Director (International Media), Presidential Secretariat, Colombo. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at sugeeswara@gmail.com)

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